Merlot is the most widely planted red grape in France’s Bordeaux region, although it is eclipsed in stature by cabernet sauvignon, the grape with which it is routinely blended. In recent years, Merlot has enjoyed a explosion in popularity, especially in the United States, South America, Italy and Australia. In California, plantings have risen from 4,000 acres in 1988 to over 50,000 today.
A thin-skinned variety, merlot ripens earlier in the season then cabernet sauvignon and is less hardy, prone to a variety of ailments from shatter (the loss of potential fruit during flowering of the vine) to rot and mildew. It is more adaptable to cool climates than cabernet sauvignon, but similarly prefers a relatively warm growing environment.
Merlot’s popularity is due to the fact that it is softer, fruitier, and earlier-maturing than cabernet sauvignon, yet displays many of the same aromas and flavors – black cherry, currant, cedar, and green olive – along with mint, tobacco and tea-leaf tones. Although enjoyable as a varietal wine, it is probably most successful when blended with cabernet sauvignon, which contributes the structure, depth of flavor, and ageability merlot lacks.
Like cabernet, merlot is a good accompaniment to simply prepared beef and lamb dishes.